typical process of buying a car on its head -- and put banks at the heart of the action.
With the Internet making the already competitive indirect lending business more so, Chrome Data Corp. wants to make banks' Web sites more attractive places for consumers to begin an on-line car search. And banks seem to need the help.
"Banks have really dropped off in the portion of overall auto loans that they hold," said David Littman, chief economist of Comerica Inc. in Detroit, citing Federal Reserve data.
Commercial banks held 34.8% of auto loans in April 1999, down from 60% in December 1990. Though those shares do not account for loans that banks originate and then securitize, captive finance companies account for the majority of loan securitizations.
Banks also face significant threats from auto brokers such as Autobytel.com and direct sellers such as CarsDirect.com, which tend to have preset financing arrangements with specific lenders or lender networks. Buyers choose a car, and the site connects them with the lenders.
"I think the Internet opens up the same opportunity for the banks to do to the dealers what the dealers did to them," said James Adkisson, president and chief executive officer of Chrome Data. He was referring to the financing arms of large automakers that have been able to disintermediate banks by offering cut-rate loans to "captive" customers.
Chrome Data is proposing that banks use its Web Carbook. For more than a decade the company has sold the PC software version of its Carbook to car dealers. The product streamlines the once-cumbersome processes of "configuring" -- selecting a specific car make and model, along with various options -- and pricing.
Chrome Data is now licensing the Web version to financial institutions and other businesses. Customers of these institutions can use the software to execute the complicated task of configuring and pricing the car they want. Customers then submit a request for a loan quote on a particular vehicle.
In a complete reversal of the typical indirect lending process, financial institutions, once they receive the request and approve the loan, submit a complete financing package to a network of auto dealers. The dealers then bid to become the customer's provider.
"One year ago, Chrome was saying, 'We've got this valuable data,' " said James L. McQuivey, senior analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. "Now everyone realizes that they're the only Switzerland left, the only one that is not owned by someone trying to sell cars. That makes the value of the information go up."
By remaining independent, Chrome Data is providing the necessary information that underlies car buying on the Internet without competing with banks, manufacturers, or dealers, Mr. Adkisson said.
"We're building an Internet infrastructure under the existing market rather than disintermediating players," he said.
Since launching Web Carbook in September, Chrome Data has licensed it to more than 200 financial institutions, including the nation's largest credit union, Navy Federal. Chrome also provides information to high-visibility Internet companies such as America Online Inc. and priceline.com Inc. The car auction site uautobid.com is also using the data.
Corporate America Family Credit Union of Elgin, Ill., a Chrome Data customer, helps its members choose and price cars as a means of persuading them to use the credit union for auto loans, said Jason Yorkmark, a marketing representative at the credit union.
"This gives them useful ammunition about what to expect when they go to a dealer," he said. "It also gives them bargaining power."
At first glance, compiling price information about different cars, including various options, might seem relatively straightforward. But the sheer number of models -- Ford Motor Co. and its Lincoln and Mercury divisions, for example, sell 29 models in the United States -- and the multitude of available options make the task complicated.
It's so complex that even some manufacturers resort to buying data on different configurations from external sources, according to Mr. McQuivey of Forrester.
Before companies like Chrome Data began providing software versions of the information, car dealers had to leaf through thick binders -- often three per manufacturer -- to configure and price a particular car. Employees known as fleet people were specially trained in wading through the morass of information to order and determine the price of a specific car or truck.
"Dealers used to tell us somebody could walk in the door with a bag full of money, and if the fleet guy wasn't in, they couldn't help that person order a car they didn't already have in inventory," Mr. Adkisson said.
The software also smoothes complicated connections between various options. Sometimes selecting one option sets off a domino effect on the rest of the vehicle's options, Mr. Adkisson said.
Adding a trailer-towing apparatus for the back of a car or truck, for example, may require an upgraded transmission, which may in turn require a different battery and radiator, Mr. Adkisson said. A $390 trailer-tow could end up costing $1,200 or more.
Having accurate configuration and pricing information is crucial to developing automotive electronic commerce, analysts said. If a price cannot be nailed down on-line, then the consumer will have to correspond directly with a vendor or dealer, they said.
"For the consumer, having this data is very important," said Adam Weiner, senior auto analyst at Gomez Advisors Inc. in Lincoln, Mass. "They look at the data to understand who pays what," he said, noting that Chrome Data provides both manufacturer's suggested retail prices and factory invoice prices.
About 5,600 dealer franchises and 500 corporate and fleet accounts, including General Electric, AT&T, and the Coca-Cola Co., use Chrome Data's PC Carbook software. Chrome Data is switching dealers who use PC Carbook to Web Carbook and has signed up 100 dealers for the new product. Mr. Adkisson said he hopes dealers will also sign onto the Chrome.com network, which enables them to submit quotes to consumers who use Web Carbook.
The cost of licensing the information varies depending on the business using it. Dealers pay about $150 a month for just the Carbook information, or $350 for a range of services including the ability to submit quotes to interested consumers. Large portals, including those of financial institutions, pay as much as $10,000 a month.
Voluble and quick to break into a broad grin, Mr. Adkisson projects the enthusiasm of an affable salesman. A former sales manager at a brokerage, he took over the reins at Chrome Data in 1987, a year after it was founded, to help it raise financing. Celas Hug, a computer engineer and one of the company's co-founders, came up with the idea of creating a relational data base that could handle all of the car configuration and pricing information.
Chrome Data touts its status as the only large, independent provider of auto configuration and pricing information on the Web. Rivals Autodata Marketing Systems Inc. and Automotive Information Center were recently purchased by Carsdirect.com and Autoweb.com, respectively. Autoweb, an Internet broker, refers consumers' on-line car preferences to a number of dealers who then offer bids to the consumer.
Microsoft Corp.'s CarPoint service offers loans from E-Loan Inc., a Dublin, Calif. on-line lender. Ford Motor Co. recently became an investor, announcing a "new" CarPoint joint venture with Microsoft. Autobytel.com enables consumers to submit loan information and receive bids for loans from several lenders using technology from LendingTree Inc.
"If I go to CarPoint to shop for a car and then get financing from Ford Motor Credit -- all within half an hour -- I'm not going to think of going to my bank," Mr. McQuivey said.
Unless, as Chrome Data intends, the bank is there first.